I’m not claiming to be highly schooled in such things, but doesn’t it seem maybe a little too obvious that Pres. Obama was photographed not just once, but repeatedly, in front of stacks of ground-ready oil pipes in Cushing, Oklahoma this past week? The message was clear, even before he said his first word: we are with you in your need and your desire for oil. Oh, and of course let’s not forget that we’ve got to have people to lay those pipes too, which translates into jobs, jobs, jobs!
I kept wondering what the president could have been thinking as he stood there talking about ordering the expedited construction of the southern portion of the XL pipeline down to the Gulf. I hate to say this because I’m a great fan of Pres. Obama, but my fear is that he was thinking: how many votes will this get me come the fall?
To be fair, let’s posit that the trip to Cushing was not about grandstanding, or at least not solely, and instead that it was part of the president’s “all of the above” strategy, which is itself inherently flawed. In case you’re unfamiliar with that strategy, what it references is the notion that we need to use all possible energy sources, clean or not, in order to power our country.
I suppose that for many people this approach has a certain immediate, almost intuitive appeal to it. I mean, what’s wrong with saying that we cannot expect to power our houses or our factories, to say nothing of our cars, solely by clean energy in anything like the immediate future, and so in the meantime we’ve got to use all sources of fuel at our disposal, or risk ruining our country economically and falling farther behind competitors like China and India?
But I believe that this is a false dichotomy; it’s not an either-or proposition. Of course there is no doubt that we will continue to rely on oil for the foreseeable future. We may not like it; I may not like it, but it’s the case. However, it doesn’t follow from this that we have to continue on with a proposition like the XL pipeline, or with drilling in the tar sands of northern Canada.
Claiming that the oil that comes from these tar sands would remain in the US, or that the price of gasoline in the country would come down as a result of drilling in Canada, are both inaccurate and misleading statements. The selling of oil takes place on the world market, and the price reflects that market. No amount of drilling in Canada is going to substantially change either its availability to US buyers, or lower its cost to them.
If we take a closer look at how the price of world oil is set, we see that it reflects and is ultimately determined by its perceived future availability. That availability in turn fluctuates wildly due to political circumstances. Markets are notoriously spooked first and foremost by anything that can be conceived of as instability. Will Israel attack Iran? Will Iran retaliate? Will Iran attempt to close the Straits of Hormuz? If so, what will the US do? What will happen in Syria? Will its current unrest and the atrocities inflicted upon its population by the Assad regime turn into a full-blown civil war, and will the chaos that ensues then spill over into the rest of the Middle East? All this, along with the other side of the equation, namely demand, are the things that are making a difference in the price of gasoline at the pump, not whether or not Pres. Obama gives the green light to the expedited construction of a pipeline from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Republican candidates all know this. And if they do not, they ought to get out of the race immediately, as they pose an even graver danger to the political and economic well-being of the United States than I currently dare believe. But it’s politically expedient for them to blame Pres. Obama for “the rise in the cost of oil,” even when they fully understand that he has virtually no control over either its cost or its availability. Just as none of them would, if they were to become president. And on top of that, the healthier the US economy gets, the greater the demand for oil.
But even in discussing these details, I have to think I’m wandering too far from the main point that I began with. It might even appear that I am buying into the hype that more and more gasoline is needed. No! What is needed is an energy policy that phases out gasoline, and indeed all bio-fuels, as quickly as possible. We currently give enormous tax breaks to huge multinational oil companies, which already make profits that register in the billions of dollars every quarter, but by comparison almost nothing is given to those companies, few as they may be, that labor to bring about clean energy usage. Does that make good sense – or, dare I say, good policy – at a time when the results of global climate change are becoming more and more obvious, and more ominous, every day?
So, I get it that Pres. Obama has to work in order to be reelected. And that’s a good thing. God help us if he is not! But I have to really hope that, given a second term, he will redouble and even triple his efforts to decrease our dependence on bio-fuels of all kinds. It’s not just about saving the incalculable beauty of the northern Canadian landscape from the predations of dirty oil drilling in the tar sands there, although that itself is a laudable goal. But what is much more vital – and I don’t believe this to be too overblown a statement to make – is that we need an energy policy that will ultimately save the planet. Or to put it another way, as the planet will no doubt go on one way or another in spite of all that humans can do to ruin it, in the end we need a policy that will save the life forms on the planet. This includes you and me, and your daughters and your sons.
President Obama’s words last week notwithstanding, producing more oil and gas won’t help with this. What will help is a plan that gets us off a dependency on oil and gas, and gets us onto a track that promotes a healthy and sustainable future for all of us.